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Theresa May's inability to show emotion to the public proves that she isn't fit to be Prime Minister

Of course she has heart, but she doesn't think it's as important as a cool head in a crisis. Fine, but that's not what politics is about, or at least not in this political age

Sean O'Grady
Saturday 17 June 2017 16:57 BST
Theresa May has been criticised for her approach to the Grenfell Tower tragedy
Theresa May has been criticised for her approach to the Grenfell Tower tragedy (BBC)

What is wrong with Theresa May? It's a genuine question, and not even meant unkindly. But for a politician, her reluctance to meet people – the people you're asking to vote for you and support you – is striking.

Of course not every politician enjoys electioneering and some might well feel that they don't want to exploit private grief for political gain, yet her failure to meet at first the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster seems more than just a PR mistake. It is symbolic of the fact that she is a cold fish. At the moment, the British people aren't looking for a cold fish. They want someone to offer them some leadership in emotional times.

It is perfectly possible to believe that her security detail advised that she might get harassed if she wandered around the streets of Notting Hill – but she could have met people off camera in a private room, directly after the event had happened. She could have done what the Queen did, and she has the same security issues. They aren't about to beat her up, and she has armed police surrounding her most of the time.

The situation could have been handled better. She should say so. When that sort of thing happens in the real world, most of us ordinary folk are happy admit to mistakes at work and say sorry. May doesn't do sorry, either. When Emily Maitlis asked her about the coward taunts on the BBC’s Newsnight, May ignored the question.

In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn hugs those he meets and says very little. When he does, his very lack of oratorical skill only goes to demonstrate his authenticity. He does informal. He speaks human. He is at ease. The images of him were natural and unspun – any press officer would be delighted by them. No tie, lots of sympathy.

Theresa May goes with the formal sit-down interviews, dressed as formally as ever, sticks to the script and yet again relies on sound bites, this time about supporting the emergency services and getting on with the job. In the end, she wound up hiding in a church and being called a coward. That was horribly unfair, but it is true that she finds it difficult to speak to folk she doesn't know. So worried does she seem at the PR consequences of a Gillian Duffy moment (Gordon Brown's “bigoted woman”) that she brings still worse opprobrium on herself by avoiding her suffering electors. We know that David Cameron or Tony Blair would have handled everything better.

Shy, brittle, private, visibly ill at ease when invited to open up, unsympathetic: this politician isn't a very good politician. She's not run for anything except to be MP for the safe seat of Maidenhead – that is until she opted for her ill-judged presidential general election, which she didn't exactly win.

Theresa May criticised for 'inhuman' Newsnight interview

In other words, maybe a leadership contest against Boris Johnson would have exposed some of these shortcomings sooner. Maybe long-term exposure to a bit of public heckling would have made her think faster on her feet. There's a reason why the Americans have presidential primaries, after all. Again, Corbyn’s two leadership campaigns had the ironic effect of sharpening up his skills, such as they were. He enjoys being on the stump. He has got momentum, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Now Theresa May is stuck in a negative narrative, where everything she does is seen through that prism of failure. Even if she asked someone the time, there’d be stories headlined “May in new bungle – PM doesn't even know what time it is!”.

Like Gordon Brown and John Major before her, she has passed a honeymoon period after which she can do no right, even when she does. Even her old friends in the press may be suffering buyer’s regret. Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch might have thought they’d acquired a taller version of Maggie Thatcher – instead they realise they bought a lemon. Her MPs don't think she can lead them into the next election. She is a caretaker. We don't want a caretaker just because it suits the Tory party.

Theresa May is one of life’s civil servants. Dedicated to public service, assiduous, conscientious, well prepared, efficient, practical: these are her qualities, and excellent ones too in a top administrator forming and implementing policy – getting on with the job. Of course she has heart, but she doesn't think it's as important as a cool head in a crisis. Fine, but that's not what politics is about, or at least not in this political age. She doesn’t inspire, she can’t reassure, she won’t unite and she can’t win in any sense. She won’t last.

We don't know what’s wrong with her and the way she is, but clearly it is not fixable and we’re starting not to care. Now we are just waiting for her to go.

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